I know, I keep saying that… but really, that’s what lies at the truth of the matter. Mention that you’re driving up there, tell a story of some odd sight you’ve seen amongst the winding roads, tiny creeks and sandstone caves; and I can almost guarantee you that someone will chime into the conversation with that very sentiment– “You never know what you’ll find on the Putty Road.” Which will be accompanied, probably, with a small bemused smile and a slight shake of their head. This long, lonesome drive was the route we built our Brilliant Road Trip around.
There is just over one hundred kilometers of the main stretch of road, no mobile phone reception, no service stations. Houses are very few and far between– the numbers on letter boxes seem to jump from 340 to 8769 with alarming lengths of isolation between them. The Grey Gum Cafe (last food for 66 km’s, or so the sign says) boasts not only air conditioning that barely tempers the 35 degree heat, (and I say a small prayer of thanks for the air efficient iciness) but also wifi. Which apparently hasn’t been working for a week or so now. And I find myself thinking “How do you live up here…?”
At the same time, I get it. The air is crisp and clean, the sky seems to stretch for miles. Craggy bush rock cliffs are dotted with precariously perched gum trees clinging to sandy soil with an astonishing persistence. The rocky cliffs are pocked with caves, large and small. One huge cliff we cruise past sports dozens of them, room for a bustling community of hidden rock people, and I, so briefly I barely realize it, wish my son years older so stopping the car and facing uncharted bushland on a trek to find a network of natural caves was yet another bizarre activity his mum could strong arm him into. Low topography and lush greenery provide visual markers for the veins and rivulets that make up the Wollemi’s knotted river system; and we pass over rickety bridges with signage that announce the names of tiny creeks, only to be unable to see any water– just a deep, green crevice that winds and swirls back across paddocks or bends out of sight behind lichen–coated canyons. (The infamous Wollemi pine was, they say, discovered quite by chance by someone who happened to be… canyoning. The bravery)
The thing about the Putty Road is, it takes you completely by surprise every few kilometers. While you’re still marveling over the last oddity– an overgrown, abandoned junkyard,perhaps, or the vibrant Batman symbol painted on corrugated iron and attached to tree on a bend in the road, not a driveway or property to be seen nearby– you’ll suddenly spot something else by the roadside, a licker of oddity at one hundred clicks. The remains of a an ancient house, only the chimneys and foundations surviving; a face painted onto a tree; a set of massive brick and stained glass gates adorned with pristine white crucifixes and flanked by acres of manicured lawn.
Auntie Mickey pulls the Elantra over as we spot, a few hundred metres ahead, what seems to be a whole abandoned village, there are so many buildings set at varying depths back from the road, but too clustered together to have been even the smallest of towns. One of my BookFace likers suggested that perhaps it was abandoned camp, and the first two or three buildings– those closest to the road– do look like dormitories, rectangular and squat with rows of doors on one side. One structure seems to have been, maybe, a store at some point in the past, a tiny one like the Grey Gum, with ice creams and milkshakes and friendly staff who know all the truck drivers and tradies that take this road on a regular basis.
But the further in I venture, through knee high bracken fern spring from sandy, gritty soil (snakes… it’s so hot today, and my God I hate snakes with a seething, slinking disgust), the more out of sync the ruins become. A tiny house, a low lying shed. A car with its paint still intact, but huge clumps of moss growing from the windows rotted rubber seals. A rusted out bus– not the one we’ve set out looking for– is flanked by occasional piles of metal oddments rusted a deep ocher red, stark contrasts to the oceanic fields of short, scratchy green ferns. Beyond the bus, over a rise, is what appears to be a bunker, next to rusted out water tank on creaky, rotting wooden stilts. There’s another tiny cottage, and this one seems older again, a small verandah off it’s one room, climbing ivy threaded through the unboarded window. Leading past the tiny house (someone’s first home, quite possibly, the home someone’s first baby was bought into the world in) is a corridor through the scrub and pitted piles of metal debris. It leads to a graveyard, an elephant ceremony full of rust–ridden, disintegrating cars. Every make and model, vans and sedans and old steel cruisers in varying faded shades of original paint, only the tiniest sparkling tinkles of chrome left among them.
Returning to the car and looking back into this deserted camp–place, everything appears green– the moss and lichens and moulds coating the walls of each building are almost the same murky color of pond water brimming with tadpoles as the bushland that’s slowly eating them. It’s as if the entire place is trying to camouflage itself, to disappear back into the foothills of the Yengo National Park that it’s set in.
There’s a payphone close to the road, next to the car with my sleeping child inside. Taped to the payphone’s perspex outer wall it is a hand written missing persons poster, with a photo of a man about the same age as me. Last seem a few weeks ago, somewhere on the Putty Road.
“He’s not missing,” says Auntie Mickey, and I know her well enough to know she’s only half joking, “he’s somewhere in there.” She nods towards to the maze of overgrown life I’ve just returned from, and I shiver involuntarily. She may just have a point.
Back to the car.
It’s maybe another twenty minutes of driving before we turn a corner and, entirely unannounced, a massive, ,gleaming silver sculpture comes into view. “Oh wooooowwwwwww…..” breathes the Chop from his backseat view, just woken up and totally entranced by this completely bizarre spectacle, exactly the way I hoped he would be. This is the relatively new pinnacle of the Putty Road drive– the burnt out Halway RoadHouse, now home to the Wo–Man. And the rather eccentric bloke named Dave who built the steel him. Her. It. Whatever.
The HalfWay RoadHouse was, only ten years ago, the only petrol station on the Putty Road and– oddly enough for a structure that houses litres upon litres of fuel beneath it– the skeletons of not only the roadhouse but even the bowsers remain. The front facade of the building and the covered petrol filling area remain, as do most of the interior walls. But the roof is entirely missing, and the edges of everything that does remain are charred and blackened, one large room missing almost it’s entire wooden floor.
|The RoadHouse, from the inside, with the Wo-Man in the background.|
Not that Dave seems to mind. He bought this place two years ago, he tells us, and is gradually, slowly fixing it up as he goes. For now, he mans a small shelter tucked into the side of the roadhouse. He’s got an Esky full of cold drinks for a dollar a pop. And he sells sausage sandwiches and bacon and egg rolls that he cooks, as you watch, on the barbecue he has welded himself from scrap metals. The barbecue has a horse head for a chimney.
There’s more metal creatures and sculptures dotting the picnic grounds next to Dave’s barbecue and the ghost of the roadhouse– a massive spider, twin Futurama Benders, a family of emus with a plaque that reads ’emulation’. Beyond the picnic ground is a huge field that Dave tells us is filled with roos on dusk. He also points out his house, a tiny one room shanty shed. And his boat– a massive, sixty foot sail boat dry docked at the top of a mountain, behind a burnt down building.
We chat and take photos and Chop examines an exquisitely crafted metal hand and a troop of squat, welded Ned Kelly’s, their bellies and helmets made from cut down LPG tanks. As we’re leaving– really, once you’ve taken in the brilliance of a fifty wo–man gleaming silver in the afternoon sunshine, there’s not much to do here but relax and shoot the breeze–Dave hugs us goodbye and reminds us to pass the word on, to tell people about his metal artwork and his business atop the Putty Road. “And, if you know any ladies who’d fancy coming to live out here… let them know, too”. And with that sentence I get a funny pang. It’s the first time the dusky, ethereal, weirdly romantic cataract is removed from my mind’s eye since our car pulled to a stop here. The whole place suddenly seems just a bit lonely, like clouds coming over to chill a warm summer’s day. It tugs at me, desolate and sad.
|The Chop in Dave’s backyard, with the giant sail boat behind him.|
Before we hit the road again, I make inquiries of Dave regarding this bus, the one I know is down here somewhere. The one were looking for, an urbexing holy grail road tripping. Dave, with the knowledge of a local who enjoys a chat, gives us directions that are accurate almost to the metre. A woman lived there, he tells me, Up until just a few years ago. She had a life set up in that stationery bus, a virtual paradise by a tiny creek. She was ninety four years old when she passed away, and they found her body in the creek that runs just metres from the vehicle in which she lived. The bus has sat there, unclaimed, on what is, I suppose, essentially unowned land, ever since. I’d spotted it, just a flicker of it, as a pillion passenger on the Black Dog Ride… I think. But the bus I remember seeing was pale yellow, not blue like this, and it was parked much closer to the road. Maybe it was a different bus, broken down by a different creek and towed out of the gully by now, six months on from the last time I came through here. Or maybe human memory is just a funny monkey thing, substituting images from it’s stock footage to fill gaps in the internal sequence.
We would have missed this bus entirely, passed by without even knowing it was it was there, especially travelling North as we were. After doing a quick u–turn the mammoth, unmoving was easier to spot… but still barely more than a flash of blue and white in the greenery as you passed by.
This bus been vandalized, this funny, almost cheerful vehicle secluded in place where no one lives now on this land that no one really owns. The contents and furnishings of the bus, left behind when their owner died, have been spread across the grassy plateau behind where the bus sits. The ground seems it drop away in levels– the first the road. Parked on the second step down is the bus itself and what was once the small, and seemingly w
ell tended, courtyard that framed it’s two doorways. Another drop in levels, a steeper and higher slide down across damp soil rooted with low–growing foliage and the occasional biting stinging nettle– all three of us cop sharp, sudden burning lashes on our ankles (”Why do they sting?!” Asks my little man through his tears, “Because, honey, it’s to protect themselves. So animals won’t eat them.” “But we weren’t going to eat them!!” “The nettles didn’t know that, baby…”)– and you find yourself at a creek, a trickle of clear water to the left that gathers into a tiny, crystal millpool on the right. I can’t help but wonder where they found her, the lady who was here, and exactly what she would think of her possessions, scattered and scorched and laying about on the ground, with the lush cold climate growth slowly gathering them as its own. I wonder, too, what happened to the dog she must have kept as a pet, the animal who’s dish and bowl still sit on the edge of the vandal’s leftovers. I do hope someone took him home with them.
It’s almost always fascinating, seeing what’s left of something’s life that stopped, one way or another, not long ago. The bus is gutted. It’s traditional fittings– seats, steering wheel and so forth– were, I suspect, pulled out by it’s rightful owner before she installed her own creature comforts, the ones that now lay abused and disrecpted over what once was her space, her tiny garden. We spot a mattress, a microwave, a chest of drawers, glass bottles, a radio. The remains of a small portable pool, mostly stil intact but the walls sagging sadly inward– it still has a hose running into it, and it’s only later, after we’ve driven away, that it occurs to me that we didn’t look to where exactly the other end of the hose was connected– surely, there was no running water to this makeshift caravan in the middle of nowhere…?
Looking back at the bus from a distance, my imagination fills in the blanks, sorts the visual clues, to spot where a veggie patch once resided– a metal trellis for climbing beans and snow peas still exists, suspended between the trunks of two close together gum trees. And the bus itself was a permanent fixture here– it wasn’t intended to be moved, it seems for quite a while. There’s a concrete step at the front door, it’s formation also, oddly, still intact. The back door also features a concrete step, but not so conventionally made– this step is not molded carefully like its fraternal twin. This step simply three bags of concrete mix stacked atop each other. They’ve been here so long, exposed to so many freezing Hunter winters and so much run–off from torrential rain pour being pulled down toward the creek, that they’ve solidified completely, still in their original bagged shape.
There’s even a car here, in this unofficial allotment, parked a little while up from the bus, on a concrete slab to prevent it becoming bogged in the same heavy wash–off rains that sent the concrete solid. Nothing it a rusted out body atop a chassis remains. It’s obviously been parked here much longer than the bus. I stare at it, entranced, realising there is a set of rusted number plates still attached.
I try to imagine a woman, ninety four years of age living here, tucked away next to a creek on the border of a national park. No phone, to connection to the outside world. A pool and a creek and a dog and a veggie patch. A little slice of earthly heaven that must have cost her just cents a day to keep functional. There’s nothing eerie or creep about the vibe here– she was, by the feel of it, a very happy woman, who lived out the last years of her life in chosen, contented isolation.
We hop back in the Elantra, even the Chop (blessedly) silent for a little as we continue our cruise along the Putty Road. This isn’t the last time I’m going to be doing this drive, I’m sure of that… I know that before we even turn off onto the New England Highway. There are so many more places to explore here. I’m to even sure why, but this road is a very strange place. It’s got so many secrets to be found.
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